WASHINGTON — The downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine renewed the world’s attention Friday to the conflict that’s been raging there for months. But despite near unanimous assertions that a missile had blasted the plane from the sky, definitive blame for what President Barack Obama labeled a “global tragedy” seemed likely to be months away.
Obama pledged a full investigation and said evidence indicated the plane was downed by a surface-to-air missile fired from a region controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The U.S. representative at the United Nations, Ambassador Samantha Power, went further, hinting that Russian technicians might even have played a role in the launch.
But the probe into the crash is likely to take a year or more, experts said, and it faces many challenges. And until its conclusions are known, it’s unlikely that anyone will be held accountable for the deaths of the 298 people on board, including one American and citizens of at least nine other nations.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI plan to send investigators to Ukraine, but the obstacles are legion: Finding pieces of the missile could prove difficult, the plane’s wreckage may be hard to access, and the location of the black box recorder, often crucial to learning about crashes, was unclear. Some experts questioned whether once located it would provide any useful information.
Ukrainian officials have said they believe Russian separatists near the town of Torez used a Soviet-era Buk mobile anti-aircraft missile system to down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew along a well-known commercial air corridor over eastern Ukraine on its way from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Obama echoed that conclusion, and he criticized Russia Friday for aiding the separatists, but he stopped just short of assessing blame.
“There are only certain types of anti-aircraft missiles that can reach up 30,000 feet and shoot down a passenger jet. We have increasing confidence that it came from areas controlled by the separatists,” Obama said.
While saying the Pentagon has no direct evidence that a Buk anti-aircraft system or an SA-11 missile crossed into eastern Ukraine from Russia, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, expressed extreme doubt that the separatists could have obtained such sophisticated weaponry or learned how to use it on their own.
“It strains credulity to think that they could do this without some measure of Russian support and assistance,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.
But proving it was an SA-11 might be difficult, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, who served as the head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency from 2008 until 2013. Very little of an SA-11 missile would have survived the explosion and the high-speed descent from 33,000 feet, the plane’s cruising altitude, he said.
Moreover, he said, the SA-11 uses a proximity fuse that triggers the warhead when it senses that the target is close.
“The missile almost self-destructs,” said O’Reilly, who is now a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy institute.
Recovering the aircraft’s black box also may not be a big help. A military aircraft would have the capability of recording information from a missile attack, but the black box on a civilian jet would only have monitored which systems failed in the few seconds after the warhead detonated.
“The only thing they’re going to hear on the black box is a boom,” said John Goglia, an aviation safety consultant and former member of the NTSB who was the first certified aircraft mechanic on the board.
“From a point of view of detecting what happened from the point of how the intercept occurred, it may be momentarily the last second or so of indicating what systems failed or how, and that’s about it,” O’Reilly said.
Asked where the black box might be, Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said, “I don’t know.”